There are many books set in places that exist only in fiction. Most of these fictional lands are distant in time and/or space, in other galaxies or alternate universes. But for the past few months, I’ve been reading about a nonexistent country that—if it were real—would be in our present time and right here on Earth.
The country is called Sanctuary. Here is what its creator, author PJ O’Brien, says about it:
She was challenged to write a genre-bending mystery after losing an argument with ducks about the inevitability of violence. She dreamed up a country founded upon the ideals of fairness and peace, and then added characters that had to abide by the framework of their culture. They were given the traditional provocations to fighting (e.g. limited resources, invasions, religious & ideological differences) as well as some natural horrors that plague people. The characters were allowed to evolve on their own and respond to crises as they saw fit. They had only to be true to their culture, retain essential elements of modern humanity, and be charming when not dealing with threats that could potentially end the world as they knew it.
Now that I’m well into the fourth and last book of the series, I can list some basics about Sanctuary:
According to the author, Sanctuary may be located anywhere on Earth that readers would like it to be. I picture it somewhere in Asia, between India and China. My reasons: the languages named, customs relating to tea-drinking, etiquette involving bowing and an elaborate system of honorifics, the importance of martial arts. Also the climate, in which snow is rare and serious cold isn’t mentioned. There are dry, bare rocky places and sandstorms. Also, the country was occupied in WW2, so is not in the Americas or Australia/NZ.
Despite the above, the inhabitants are pretty up on American movies and popular music.
Everyone has a cell phone and many use the internet, but CDs are the main vehicle for recorded music. There are national TV and radio stations.
The only agricultural area is situated close to the country’s only forest. The Forest and the Purple Mountains are central to Sanctuary’s history and a source of conflict and mystery.
The Forest and its people occupy a unique position, especially its women, some of whom have special talents.
The country has a policy of pacifism and sends humanitarian missions to conflict zones.
Members of the Masters Guild are trained to different levels and types of martial arts. They carry out the roles of police, security, and (when needed) defensive armed forces.
The country’s monarchs are brother and sister, with succession through women. There is also an elected Assembly.
There is no capital punishment, even for serious crimes. Wrongdoers are confined in temple complexes for rehabilitation.
There are multiple religions, but no official faith (although the Royals have an official set of rituals). Much discussion of religion occurs in the books.
Courtiers are a somewhat privileged group focussed on the Palace (which is located away from the capital city), with an interest in gossip and intrigue. But the life of a Courtier isn’t always easy.
Sanctuary’s history goes back more than 1,000 years. Legendary and historic figures are often mentioned in discussions of contemporary matters.
Some pretty grim stuff is mentioned at times (war, starvation, massacre, murder, rape, etc.), but there is a lot of warmth and humour.
These books show individuals and groups working out large and small challenges and differences within the parameters as outlined above. Readers will find most of the situations relatable.
Dialogue is the primary mode of conveying the narrative, interleaved with brief scene-setting descriptions. In general, description of people, landscapes, buildings, etc. is minimal. This is hard to believe, considering each book is over 1,000 pages (between 400 and 500K words). The dialogue is often realistic and snappy.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of characters, with a core of a couple of dozen. Point of view shifts among them, with occasional out-zooms to omniscience. Each scene features an issue or situation of interest to someone, who talks it through with one or more other characters. This sounds like it might be confusing, but it’s not. The place and time of each chapter are always indicated.
By now, those reading this will have realized that the Sanctuary Series books deviate somewhat from the beaten track of fiction. I’m not sure what genre they belong to, if any. The author has used the term “speculative ethnology,” which certainly describes aspects of them. Keywords applied to the books include “mashups,” “utopias,” “fantasy,” and “mystery.” One might also call them speculative family sagas.
Why? Because of Sanctuary’s unique way of managing marriage and family life. Every adult must be part of a House, i.e., a family. And said House must consist of at least two, and often includes more than two, couples who are married to all the others. Everyone has several mothers and several fathers.
Ooh, group marriage! Yes, but don’t expect group sex. In fact, there are few sex scenes as such in these books, and none that could be described as explicit. There are strict rules around marriage and House formation, as well as a degree of flexibility and quite a few challenges. It’s certainly a different type of social organization and permeates the entire series. And House names are charming, interesting, and sometimes quirky.
There is also a concept of “teaching stories” woven into the plots of the four books. In a way, the books themselves perform this role. Instead of “Once upon a time…” we have “What if there was a country where…”
I have found these books to be engaging and will be sorry to finish reading the last one in the series. They are like a long-running TV series that becomes part of one’s life. I have looked forward to reading regular “episodes” in the past year. I recommend an unhurried approach to reading these books. There’s no need to race through them to find out how they end. Let the stories unfold slowly. Start with the first book, Surviving Sanctuary, and allow yourself to be drawn into life in this imaginary land.
More information about PJ O’Brien and the Sanctuary Series may be found at Goodreads and at Smashwords, where Read an Ebook Week has commenced!
Featured image from Pixabay. Cover images from Smashwords.
Ever since we set up the Writers Supporting Writers Blog, there have been a few problems with it. Despite the settings, there was no Reblog button. No one but blog authors could Like posts. Follows didn’t work.
I’ve been fiddling around with the settings, and have finally managed to add the Reblog button. I’ve also seen a few additional Likes on the previous post, so I hope that’s working as well.
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Please test the Like, Follow, or Reblog functions, and let us know what happens via a comment. No, this isn’t a sneaky scheme to attract follows!
Lots of action at Writers Supporting Writers lately! The latest video chat shows us in crabby mode, admitting to our reluctance for live events, bemoaning our marketing efforts, but concluding that writing is definitely worthwhile.
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And yes, we’re not happy with the site’s problems (no Reblog button, Likes not working properly, etc.) Another round of seeking help and fiddling with the settings has not helped. But we’re not giving up, so please bear with us.